I didn’t really like it as much as I think I was supposed to

As I write this post, I’m less than one hour removed from having walked out of a movie before the big third act. And it was a very popular movie, one that broke quite a few records. It’s a wonder, really.

What’s even more of a wonder, woman or man reading this, is how I feel about it. It was okay. It wasn’t great or rad or huge or amazing. It just was. It was better than some of the other movies I’ve seen in the same universe, but it didn’t grab me or transport me or take me anywhere. I stayed in my seat, and did a lot of head shaking. A little eye rolling too. And that’s the problem.

Well, that’s part of the problem. I mean, in theory we should all be able to have our opinions and share them knowing that we’ll be respected as much before sharing as after, but I don’t know if you noticed this, it’s particularly difficult for some people to disassociate socio-political elements from storytelling elements. And that poses a significant problem for me right now, because I’m about to talk about some story issues with a movie and some people are going to assume I must be waving my genitals in outrage because how-dare-I-swim-upstream against all that this movie represents.

Here comes another dude talking Wonder Woman. Oh joy.

So first, let me say this and say it clearly – I have zero problem with the directing in this film. I have zero problem with the genders of anyone above or behind the line. It’s sad that it’s taken so long for a woman to accomplish what’s been accomplished. I think it’s fantastic that box office records are broken and a lot of people have panties and boxers in wads. Good. But that’s not where my issues are, and they never will be. However I know that for a lot of people that sort of thing forms a thick filter through which anything else I say will be colored, so even when I break down “hey this isn’t great development” it’ll be translated as “John sure does hate the womenfolk”, which is wrong, and any attempt to explain myself somehow reinforces that to a reader who comes in with their mind pre-decided.

Let’s talk about some positives. Wonder Woman, Gail Gadot, she’s great in this movie. She’s, yes, a good looking woman, but more importantly, she’s given a whole hell of a lot more to do in this film than stand around two dudes in a fight scene. She’s earnest and strong, and she is everything Wonder Woman.

Other positive: I think I saw the sun in a few shots. Like actual not-Snyderverse grey skies. The actual sun. Holy shit. Yes the color palette plunged quickly back to “muted = badass”, but there was actual color on screen at times.

Other other positive: It’s a really lean movie. Unlike the other Snyderian films that digress with long shots of staring or strange dream sequences or time tunnels, this story moves us from A to B to C without a lot of fat on the steak. Yay directing! Yay camera movement!

Okay, now let’s see if I can cover this story without plot spoilers. Just about everything I’m going to talk about is available in the trailers, so aside from one note about secondary characters being incredibly secondary, I’m not going to drop anything that isn’t either already out there, or isn’t sort of obvious.

Diana is an Amazon princess of Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons, and when World War 1 breaches the shores of Paradise Island, she takes up sword, shield, and lasso (hey where was the lasso when she was hanging out with Batfleck and allegedly-Superguy?) to go do what’s right. Joining her is Captain Kirk and a cast of otherwise pretty forgettable goodguys. Opposing her, as is pretty standard in her early story, are some Germans. Ultimately, her journey teaches her valuable lessons about heroism and it’s what molds her into the woman who will later fight a CG burnt-testicle cave troll.

That’s the plot in really broad spoiler-free strokes. That’s it. This is an origin story.

Let us dive then into the parts where the story goes askew:

  • Character Consistency. One would think that the Amazon princess who has never encountered the real world would be the very definition of the “fish out of water”, being that her civilization hasn’t really progressed much past the Battle of Thermopylae in terms of technology. However, throughout the film this is either ignored, or played up only when humorous. She doesn’t know what a dress is, but she has no problem encountering a truck or phone.  What this conveys is that she’s only a fish out of water when the story doesn’t need her to know something, which means you’re sacrificing story momentum for the sake of joke beats before working to get back up to speed. If she’s a fish out of water once, she’s a fish out of water always, unless she’s got an in-story reason to understand something. This does not mean everything foreign needs to be explained to her, but it does mean that the writing needs to make deliberate choices about what she knows, what she can deduce or intuit, and what remains unknown to her.

  • Character Motivations, Part 1. We need to define a writing term first. “Practical motivations” are the things a character knows how to do and therefore excels and looks for opportunities to do those things as a way of asserting control or competence in the world whereas “conscious motivations” are the desires, hopes, goals, and dreams of a character that they feel and that influences them to action. For our woman of wonder, the practical motivations are set up in the first half of the first act, a very breezy set of action montages where Amazons fight each other and our main character shows growing competence. It’s worth noting here (and we’ll do it again when we talk dialogue) that this is uneven montage construction, as she’s never shown failing, just always improving, so it’s hard to assess that these actions, this combat, is truly a challenge for her.

The conscious motivations are imparted somewhat nebulously. We’re told that she’s special, we’re told somewhat that she’s good and that she believes that mankind (non-Amazonians) is by default good, and that by itself should be enough for us to buy her as a hero in the story. Except that we know she’s a hero, because she’s all over the other movie where Bruce punches Clark and then feels bad about it. It’s these conscious motivations that we’re told about and don’t really see (she doesn’t have a “save the cat” moment although she has three moments where she gives the “hero speech”), that lead her to get into the big action pieces of the movie, and we’re supposed to be swept up in it … except that if we’re told rather than shown, it isn’t really embedded in us as an audience. We don’t get that chance to feel what she feels, and we’re distanced from connecting with her.

  • Character Motivations, Part 2. Our main character gets into the plot because she sees danger that no other character sees. This is good, because every character who isn’t her or Captain Kirk is kind of disposable and tepid. And that includes the antagonist (who we’ll get to in a minute). Any time a protagonist has to accomplish something that want for accomplishment should sit at the confluence of two things – a character arc and a plot conflict. Diana doesn’t really have an arc, because naivete isn’t really an arc, it’s part of what’s shed when you have an arc, sort of like the hair you lose during a haircut is only part of what informs the new changed haircut. Diana goes off to confront the bad guy because he’s the badguy, with no other motivation than “that’s what the story says to do.” But what does Diana want to do? What she should do is dependent on her arc, but I can’t say for certain what her arc was beyond “I’mma go be an Amazon during WW1.”

  • The Antagonist. In the majority of superhero stories, the hero and villain are on a collision course because they’re on the same line, moving in opposing vectors at roughly the same velocity. The motivations for each are as much chess match as they are binary conflict. In the film, the fact that Germans represent bad (because Germans = Nazis no matter the history, right?) is used as a blanket to certify that the villain is a badguy. Look out he has a gun. Look out he’s stomping around. Someone has to stop him, oh no. All this guy (it was Danny Huston by the way), all Danny Huston needs is a moustache to twirl and we’ll hit peak generic villain status. We learn about his goals through the protagonist (and worse still, through dialogue said by a secondary character to the protagonist) so that his goals can afford to be generic and broad because anything that ticks the “it’s bad” box counts. So if you were to ask me what motivates the story’s villain, it’s a generic reason of “bad guys like fighting and winning.” Yawn.

  • Lack of Tension. Maybe this is due to the fact that this story is set a century prior to the last one, so we know she survives, and we double-know she survives because she’s in the Justice League trailer too, but here in this movie, where we’re sitting having paid our $16 for a 3D matinee, we should at least have a feeling that maybe there’s some danger. Oh wait, no? We’re gifted with shots of her taking on a war zone unscathed and always looking like she was bred for war with technology she’s never encountered like it’s no big thing? Oh, okay.

Yes, this movie is low on the “Oh I hope she’s not in danger” scale. Nope, she’s not really in danger. And she should have been. Because it’s the overcoming of that danger that lets us root for the hero when the odds are greater as the movie progresses. She’s got gauntlets that deflect bullets. Shinguards that deflect bullets. An indestructible shield, and a sword. Yeah, she’ll be fine. She’s never dirty. Also, her hair never gets messed up. Magical Amazon hair and skin care products, I guess. Also, her makeup palette changed from shot to shot sometimes, either that or someone went a little LUTS-wild.

  • Dialogue duds. There’s quite a bit of talking in this movie. Not like an Altman or Smith film, but still, there’s a lot of back-and-forths. And sometimes the dialogue sounds like people, where they have feelings and aren’t cranking it up to 11 for “their moment”, but other times it’s clear that the dialogue is delivered because the character is center frame with a tight shot. Some of this dialogue doesn’t work.

Part of this dialogue revolves around a secret being kept from Diana, and prior to my walking out of the theater, the audience is left barely enough breadcrumbs to suss it together. Not that it needs to be spelled out (though my fear is that the third act hinges on the reveal, so gag me, I’m glad I bailed), but the danger in keeping a secret from the audience is that you can generate more confusion or disinterest than mystery and a want to solve it. Yes, it’s possible to keep a character in the dark but not the audience, but ideally, you keep both in the dark so the reveal carries an impact.

  • Convenient Plot. When a story is lacking tension, a “ticking clock”, a plot-idea that imparts danger or impending harm is used. There’s a ticking clock presented in the mid-second act, but it’s done conveniently. (This might be a spoiler, and I’m sorry) This story hinges around the WW1 armistice, where the good guys want the war over and the bad guys don’t … but there’s an extra level of complication because the armistice is also presented as a problem because it’s happening soon. Or is it?

The movie’s logic is this – if the badguy isn’t stopped, then the war will go on because badguy will be bad. If that’s the case, the armistice won’t matter because the badguy will be cause more fighting. If the badguy is stopped, it’s the same as the armistice, because the war will end. So how exactly is the armistice a ticking clock? Where’s the urgency?

  • Double Convenient Plot. Usually in a linear plot (A to B to C), you arrange the scenes at A, B, and C to be reachable and progressive. Like in a road trip movie you have to go to B from A and to C from B. Weak writing shortens the distances between points (usually between B and C, because it creates false urgency and masquerades as heightened stakes. What happens here is that point C is right next to point B on the map. A literal map.

Convenience neuters tension. It neuters momentum. It takes the foot off the story throttle. It reduces danger. In general, it’s not a good look, particularly in the back half of a story.

  • Slow-Mo No No. Slow motion shots are meant to turn the ordinary into extraordinary by putting the focus and elongating the tension around an action. A ball being caught, a switch being thrown, slow motion turns an action we wouldn’t think twice about into a motion we have to pay attention to. And as in other films (300 comes to mind … which makes me think there’s something about using Grecian material that requires slow mo), slow motion shows up here whenever there’s a big fight moment. A moment, where we’d be paying attention to the protagonist either way, where now we’re forced to double-extra pay attention just because she’s leaping out a goddamned window or jumping like a ballerina before shooting an arrow Horizon Zero Dawn style. Slow motion for slow motion’s sake makes it not special. It’s supposed to be special. Too much of it makes it not special. Also, slowing down action beats doesn’t make the action more important.

  • Lousy CG. Short note here – it’s like someone just learned about masking and keyframes in Final Cut Pro. And why blur on the big CG stunts? To show something you wouldn’t subject a human or practical effect to, why does it have to be partially motion blurred with its lighting slightly off so that it screams “digital effect”?

  • Most Secondary Characters are Bland. The majority of non-critical characters are utterly replaceable, and only two of them stick out in my mind (Princess Buttercup, and I’m pretty sure that one guy was Remus Lupin). Secondary characters are often service characters, people who serve a function to the plot’s completion or character arc, otherwise they’re relegated to quips and levity. With a period piece, the secondary characters are often waypoints to measure the framing of the story, that is, these characters are the touchstones so that the primary characters can stand out more. In this film, this is taken to such an extreme, the secondary characters melt away aside from ticking a few standard movie quotas.

A secondary character should strive to stand out in some way that is greater than their plot contribution. Secondary characters should stick in our heads because of the impact they have on the protagonist’s arc, and no, it shouldn’t come through dialogue nine times out of ten. It’s not about catch phrases and quips, it’s about showing something that either makes an impression on a character or showing that not-doing something makes an impression on a character.

This all makes it sound like I absolutely destroyed this movie, and there were parts I liked beyond the physical appearance of actors. The big scenes they’re hanging hats on (No Man’s Land, Themyscira) work, and some of the smaller scenes (there’s one with snow, there’s a great moment with boats and fog) that do work.

If you’re about to tell me that my opinion doesn’t count because I walked pre-third act, I hear you. But by the time you hit the third act, the story should have all its major elements either presented or has hooked me to stick with it. What I saw of the first two acts didn’t keep me in the seat. If your mileage varied, I do hope you liked the movie.

Would I see it again? With friends, yes. On TV or Netflix, once sure.

And for the record, I do think this movie will generate less ire and workshop material than Batman vs Superman, which is both good and bad.

Until next time, good friends and creatives, keep rocking, and don’t you dare give up.

Happy writing.

The Post-Dreamation Post

This post is coming to you on Monday the 22nd of February. If it sounds a little janky, it’s because I’ve been writing it in sections while I’ve been at Dreamation, one of my local conventions.

I’d also like to point out that this is the ONLY post you’re going to get from me this week, I’ve got some surgery scheduled for mid-week, and I’m not going to be anywhere near any shape to be blogging later this week. It’s kind of a big deal, and yes I hope I’ll be okay too. On to other points.

Normally I do not shy away from giving panels to anyone, but catch me at the end of a day, or a bad day, or just when I’ve reached the end of whatever rope, and I would much prefer to sit and talk casually. Since I didn’t give a panel on Sunday, allow me now to write out what I would have said. Here goes.

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I believe, absolutely and fundamentally, that people should create art, and that art is not all that impossible to create. We face a lot of problems though when we make that decision, and while I have never yet successfully predicted the order in which these problems are faced by creators, I have to date always seen these problems in one form or another, creator after creator, no matter if we’re talking manuscripts or screenplays or little origami notions. They are universal, and I think the first step in unifying and normalizing our experiences is to get rid of the idea that you’re alone as a creative. Yes, you might be working by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone on a blue orb that hurtles through space. I mean c’mon, you’re not a Jedi on a rock watching the ocean.

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There’s the idea that what you’re making has to be of some certain level, whether that’s quality, or how marketable it is, before you’re allowed to proud of it, or think it’s a good idea. And that, I’m sorry, is complete horseshit and applesauce brought to you by whatever assumptions you’ve made or inherited that you’re only good because of bank accounts and sales figures. This idea shows up a few times in development, first in the idea stage, where people question whether the idea they just had is good enough, then again while they’re working on it, and it moves from some larval stage of notes to drafts or prototypes. Lastly it shows up in latter stages, like when it’s nearly done or when people can support crowdfunding it, or when there’s a big shiny “submit” button on an email or uploader for self-publishing.

The question of is it good enough is the same as the question of whether or not you, specifically you as a creative person who’s done this thing, are good enough. Good enough to be proud of your efforts. Good enough to be rewarded with other peoples’ time and attention and money, as if you wouldn’t be good enough without that manuscript or box or doohickey.

You must remember that you are not your product. Whatever the hell it is. However long it took you to think up, draft, revise, tool, develop, or create. You are good enough thanks to the sheer facts of being human and being creative and being brave enough to take an idea and birth it into the world.

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Along comes then the question as to what art is? Does art have any responsibility to do something? Not “do something” in the press-a-button-get-a-pellet way, but more like serve as advocate or soapbox or broadcast beacon for some cause or group or idea. By its very creation, art is a challenge, an attempt to fill a void that people haven’t perceived or thought about, so existence is already advocacy and broadcast. The contents need not take on some extra potence in interpretation thanks to cultures of politics or victimhood: sometimes it’s just a story of a trans man trying to buy his partner a Mother’s Day themed dildo, and not a treatise on lost culture. Don’t lose perspective, and certainly don’t adopt messages that you don’t want to stand behind.

Art exists, the artist cannot control how it gets interpreted, nor should they try. You might paint the word “Garbage” on canvas and tell me you’re discussing American politics, but I’ll tell you it’s awfully reminiscent of a 90s grunge band who had music that got stuck in my head. The question is not if I agree to your premise, but if I had a reaction at all, and can I, as an audience, appreciate the work, even if it’s not something I like? So when you’re making a thing, just make it. Make it for you. Make it your way. If that way means you get to give voice to people not often heard, or shed light in often dark spaces, or make conventional what so many believe abnormal, do it. But do not take on the extra baggage in some attempt to win points and curry favor. This is creativity, not the lightning round of a game show.

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Whenever there is a question of is it bad or wrong to do a thing or to do a thing this way, whether we’re talking about having a flashback at some point in a story, or having a piece of salescopy mention a product feature, or a character saying they drink Pepsi, I always respond the same way – no it’s not wrong, no one’s going to take your keyboard away for doing it. This is different than doing the thing wrong, like messing up how dialogue goes on the page, or misspelling congeniality. Doing the thing wrong means correction should happen, but just having something happen is not in itself reason enough to break out the knout and cilice, begging forgiveness from people on message boards and social media alike.

Permission isn’t meant to come externally, and in too many cases, the older models of publishing, with their emphasis on gatekeepers and exclusion, permission was this piece of meat dangled in front of the starving artists, so that there might be dancing for the amusement of those in ivory towers. That model isn’t dead so much as it’s had its control fractured, as new mediums and methods of publication offer a variety of options in place of waiting for anonymous people to respond to queries and dispense pronouncements. Because the power now sits in the hands of the author right up until the moment of submission, that permission has to derive internally, and be persistent through all the stages of creation. You can write whatever the hell you want, it can get edited and shaped into whatever will be clearest for the reader, and it will find an audience. Of course, the previous sentence has assumed you’ve given yourself permission to write and finish something without fear of later judgment, that you’ve given yourself permission to have drafts not be the finished product, and given yourself permission to go do the work necessary to figure out and find who the product’s audience is.

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Now let’s suppose just for a minute that you’re like me – a creative with some health issues (mental and otherwise), a few responsibilities, not as much time in the century to do all the things that can be dreamed in those moments when work is supposed to be happening – these are all factors that can erode the idea that you’re supposed to be making anything at all. How can you? There are bills that need to be paid, the phone never seems to stop ringing, no one at the office seems to care that you just totally figured out how to kill Maude in chapter 5, and that last night you wrote seventy-seven words about the way the car sighed like an old person sighing in a church pew. Life seems to make some distinction from the creative process, that one has to be separate from the other, that a creative has a life, and then goes off to some secret lair where they can create when the rest of the world isn’t looking, so long as they don the cloak of a pen name.

Creativity is not life’s kryptonite. It’s not to be kept in the shed like your zombie best friend, or locked away in the tower until you get miles of split ends. Creativity infuses life with necessary color and hope and imagination. Creativity takes the mundane into extraordinary places, and challenges conventions while inspiring everything from debate to contention to interest. So what’s wrong with admitting that you’re creative and that you’re making something?

Is it scary to do that? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Does that mean that someone could judge you? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, and it also doesn’t discount the fact that you be judged right now, and not even know it. So why the hell give it that much mental real estate? Is that helping you in any good ways?

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Look, don’t give up. Tell the doubt and the doubters to go suck lemons. Like the man says, they’re going to laugh, but you keep writing. Don’t go down without a fight. And don’t give up the keyboard, the canvas, the microphone, the whatever. Not until you’re done doing your best.

There are loads of problems you can face – rejection, lack of appeal, poor technique. Don’t shovel extra weight like crushing doubt like Jupiter’s gravity and fear of a future that hasn’t happened yet compound whatever you’re doing with some grievous notions that it’s supposed to be some way or else it’s not good enough. You are the definer of your own success(es). You are the definer of when you give up.

What you do every day is up to you, creative. You’re good enough, and this guy on the internet believes in you.

 

Go make cool stuff. Go be awesome. Rock on.

The Machinery of the First 3 Pages

It’s Friday, good job making it through week.

Before we talk about today’s topic, I want to give you some updates:

1. The #FiYoShiMo manuscript (see the index) is still under construction. I’ve had a lot more to say about some particular topics. Combine that with health and work, progress is slow, but steady. I like steady. Especially with this, where I’m making sure each idea is presented as clearly as possible.

2. Noir World sees more players later this month at Dreamation. Not in a “test this out” way, but more like “hey come do this cool thing with me.” The MS lives on three separate files and I’ll cohere it into something greater than its parts, probably starting over the weekend. Depends on my energy level.

3. Remember the Johnversations? The Youtube videos I did? They’re making a comeback. I might record one tonight. But I want to have one out for the Monday blogpost of next week. I have a few possible topics in mind, and if you’ll forgive the fact that I’ll be likely wearing a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, I sincerely think you’ll get something out of it.

4. I’m talking to some really smart people about what I can do to make better use of Smashwords. If you haven’t already checked out the stuff I have available, get the books while the price is still $3 each.

Okay enough with the updates. Let’s see what we’re talking about today.

There’s an old saying that an MS lives and dies by its first three pages. I tend to agree with it, and I know many readers (meaning: editors, agents, publishers, consumers) do as well.

What makes those three pages critical? The fact that they set tone and expectations for the reader. Whether that reader is someone with the power to move your MS towards publication, or whether that reader is someone’s mom who plunked down the bucks and got something for her Kindle to read while on vacation, you have to bear in mind that your first three pages are a machine with a purpose: to make the reader want to stay and invest time and energy and thought with the MS.

I know this can sound like it’s a compounding problem, since so many writing resources tell you with bootcamp intensity that your first paragraphs have to be strong and they’re important, and I don’t mean to up the anxiety you may feel about trying to keep all these plates spinning, but since paragraphs are part of the first pages, the whole shebang is important.

During #FiYoShiMo, we talked tone. And we got a little into expectations, but now I want explore that some more. What expectations would your reader have, where do they come from, and what do you do with or about them?

So that we don’t have to get all literary theory on a Friday, we’re going think like readers for this discussion. We’ll come back to being writers in a bit, just go with me here.

Find up any book you’ve never read. Doesn’t matter what it is. I don’t care if you’re in a bookstore aisle, or if you’re looking online at Amazon, or if you’re rooting through dead Aunt Jean’s grocery bags of crummy novels. Assuming this book has a cover on it, or at least a title page, you already have a lot of information, and that’s before you’ve even fanned through the pages.

a) You have an author’s name, and presumably can search for that author on the internet. While I’m writing this, I’ve timed myself to see how long it would take to pick up my phone, google an author and get to their blog. Total time: 11.71 seconds

Are you about to tell me that you don’t have seconds to look something up on your phone, or in a separate browser tab? Sure, yeah, I’m on a strong wifi connection right now, but we’re not saying this is hours spent digging around for info on an author’s name.

b) You may also find reviews for the book, depending on if you search the title, or the author is a magnet for controversy and all people ever talk about is how their book is somehow ruining all of existence.

c) You may also find other titles this author has written. Were they prolific? Was this a one-and-done deal? Are they still writing? Again, this is all accessible information.

d) We haven’t even considered the idea that you’ve looked at the book’s cover. Is there a picture? What does that picture tell you about what possibly may be going on in the book? Naked model holding other naked model while naked model number one stares to the side? Maybe that’s romance. Is anyone shooting a laser? I bet it’s science fiction. The cover art can color and create a lot of expectations.

e) Flip the book over. Any back blurb? (For you internet people, scroll down the page) What’s the summary tell you? Any quotes from other authors? Do those quotes sound sincere, or are they just streams of pro-sales adjectives like “amazing” or “great” or “couldn’t put it down”? Again, you’re being presented with expectations of genre and rough concepts of story.

f) Is it a thick book? Is the font tiny? How many pages? Now go and fan through. With that brief glance at paragraphs (don’t get into the text yet, just skim), do they look substantial, or do they look like tight sentences with white space all around? This is an expectation, not a fact, that you might have to labor to read this thing, so maybe you approach it timidly.

After all that, crack it open and read the first paragraph, then the first page, then go all the way until the middle or bottom of page 3. I don’t care if it stops mid-sentence. (If you’re on the Kindle, get the free sample and follow along)

What did those three pages show you? What things did you picture in your head? Here’s a list of questions:

i) Did you get introduced to the main character?
ii) Did you learn anything about the main character?
iii) Was there an action beat? What was happening in it?
iv) What did you learn about the world this story takes place in?
v) What did you learn about the setting specific to the story?
vi) Did you find out what the central conflict of the story is?
vii) Did you get introduced to the antagonist?
viii) Anybody die?
ix) How many conversations were there, and between whom?
x) Was anything foreshadowed?
xi) Was anything, in your opinion, underexplained or glossed over?
xii) Was there a chapter break?
xiii) Was there profanity or sex?
xiv) Did you get bored?
xv) Would you keep reading?

That’s fifteen questions, off the top of my head. You may have more, I could have asked more. But that’s FIFTEEN. And they’re not limited by genre or age of the book.

This is what’s important about three pages: it gets you started. This is the turned key in the ignition. Your picking up the book and opening it was the key going into the ignition, so now you want to get in gear and get moving.

I wish there was a simple formula to tell you that said that X number of paragraphs on the first page have to be about the character, then Y paragraphs have to be about the world, then Z paragraphs have to be about conflict. But there isn’t a formula like that. There’s no set percentages of text that need to be reached in order for your first pages to be engaging. Any combination of character, world, and conflict can lead to reader interest.

The question they teach in school is this: Who’s doing what, where, and why? It’s not a bad question. Whether you’re introducing Poe Dameron on Jakku, Ishmael boarding the Pequod, or Nick Charles mixing a cocktail, you’ve got a blank stage and a willing audience waiting for whatever you present.

So make it count. Don’t think of this like a long fuse that can slow burn before finally doing something. Rare are the people and situations where a reader sticks around until page 40 to see if “it gets better.” Rarer still are the professionals who stick around to page 10 in hopes that the MS gets its shit together.

It’s to your advantage to take a big swing and put together a good scene. It might not be the start of the specific plot, but it’s the reader’s access point to the plot, because you’re connecting them to a character and their world, and together they and this virtual being will (hopefully) get up their necks in the specific plot.

What does that look like? That’s up to your story. How are you going to get the reader immersed in your world, introduced to your character and convey the sort of vibe you need to in the face of their expectations? Here are three ways:

Sentence structure
It’s the primary mode of broadcast for your ideas. Vary that sentence length. Use push/pull to draw the reader in deeper as you provide details.

Word choice
No, this isn’t a permission slip to go adverb and adjective wild. Pick the best word or word phrase for the job.

Pacing
What information are you giving in what paragraph, and in what part of the paragraph? Why is it going there? Could it go sooner? Later? What’s your thinking behind that piece going where you have it? If I’m working to follow along, does that information in that spot help or hurt? Ease or retard my progress?

I wrap today’s 1600-something words with a reminder that you don’t have to do this perfect the first time. You don’t have some finite number of drafts to make this happen. No one’s coming to take away your keyboard or something-something-other-topical-American-political-commentary. This takes time, and yes, I swear to you, I promise you, if you keep doing this, if you keep working at it, you will see it pay off.

See you next week. Happy writing.

#InboxWednesday -Detail Swarms & Dialogue

Hey everyone. How’s your day going? Do anything exciting?

We’ve got two questions to answer today for #InboxWednesday. If you want your questions answered, send me an email.

It’s February, which means a new month, and that means a new calendar page. I have openings for coaching AND for manuscript edits. If that’s what you’re looking for, or you’re not sure, but kinda sure that you want to take your writing to the next level, today’s a great day for you to find out. Email or tweet, and let’s talk.

Onto the questions. We’ve got two craft questions today, they’re good ones.

In FiYoShiMo, you talk about finding details that push and pull the reader through the story. How many details is that, and which details do that better than others? – Mary

To start, I don’t want you to think that there’s a detail pecking order. There’s no set in stone hierarchy that says you always start with a detail about color or weight then move to a detail about smell or feel. If there were, writing would get formulaic and an author’s unique or personalized construction goes out the window.

One of the decisions you make as a writer is choosing the details you’re going to provide. Decision making is critical to writing, because what you choose is what we’re going to picture in our heads as we read it.

I say that, Mary, and sometimes an author starts thinking that they need to give me all the details possible, so that the picture in my head is 100% a copy of the picture in their head. A duplicate picture sounds like it should be ideal, right?

It isn’t. Because there’s no room for the reader to fill in any gaps on their own. Not sure what I mean? Here’s an example:

Bad example: The desk is cluttered. There are three glasses of water, two half full, one empty. The jar of pens is crammed, with nine black, three blue, a red and a purple pen top jutting out like a gothic editorial bouquet. The iPhone charging cord snakes across the space, dividing the fourteen square inch parallelogram of left side desk real estate into two right triangles. One is littered with three poker chips, one orange and two white. The other is filled with a steno pad, with six lines of notes. The first three are phone numbers, the fourth is a time for an appointment, the fifth and six are reminders of what to do before noon.

Yes, that helps you to know what to see, but it reads stiffly. What good does knowing all those details do for you? See the first sentence about cluttered? Why does that sentence need the further and specific expansion so that you know how it’s cluttered?

This isn’t a Chekov situation, where those poker chips are going to be hurled at rodent assassins from the future, so does knowing they’re on the table really provide that much insight into the character who owns the desk?

Let’s find the concepts about that character that we want to convey. We want to say this guy works a lot, doesn’t stay super tidy for long, and tends to work in a familiar space. Aside from the tidiness, how does our bad paragraph convey the other two concepts (hint: it doesn’t). Since it doesn’t, you come out of the paragraph not aware of the character concepts, so in that paragraph, you can’t invest in them. And woe to anyone who starts off the first page with those details, because you’ve also slowed any potential momentum to a crawl as you picture each item and its placement.

The rewrite: A cluttered desk sits in the corner of the cramped room. With all the pens and notes in a pile on the left side, a good breeze could spill days of information in too many directions. Light from the dirty window fractures as it passes through an empty glass, leaving a small rainbow on a steno pad. I decide not to touch anything.

Introducing “I” into the paragraph gives the story a bit of momentum. The bulk of the details are entrusted to the adjective “cluttered”, and amplified with the idea that a breeze could scatter the contents on top of the desk. If I needed to write additional and specific details, I could do that in a subsequent paragraph, using momentum to make the detail matter. I’d prioritize the critical details as the details essential for plot, rather than having them be on the page so you know where and how every atom is organized.

This is an unspoken contract between reader and writer. Trust your readers to want to be swept up by your story, which isn’t measured in the volume of details but in their application.

Dialogue is supposed to sound like people, right? But I need to make sure the audience knows what’s happening, so should I just have the characters talk any plot once and never call it back? – Steve

Yes, dialogue is supposed to sound like how people speak. It’s supposed to be natural, and feel authentic. Whether you accomplish that with slang or profanity or grammar or whatever, make sure you never sacrifice that sound.

As in Mary’s question, there’s an element of trusting your reader. Dialogue is one of the ways people invest in characters, because they sound like people they know, and in part that allows for the reader to project some relativity to the fiction.

The problem with your idea is that the distance between talking about doing a thing and the thing getting done could be huge. Not just single pages, but chapters, especially if you’re doing the change-narrators-each-chapter concept.

While people are smart enough to remember story details, these are also the same people who misplace their keys or who forget items off a grocery list and forget why they’ve walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Memories are great, but hardly perfect.

Also, when you have people who sound like people, they’re gonna talk about whatever shit is going on in their lives. It’ll have some feeling of “Can you believe this shit right here?” to it, and that’s a good thing.

Dialogue is a character’s reaction to the events of story, and a way of sharing the experience of the story with the other characters along with the reader. In doing that, you’re conveying to the reader that the characters exist in a larger sense than just a string of words with some capitalization. You’re treating them like people, which also means you’re treating the reader like people, which means the reader can invest into what’s going on.

It sounds, Steve, like you’re as much asking for permission as well as a specific answer. You don’t need permission from anyone. You do you. The editorial process can suss out if the dialogue falls flat and belabors the plot when it comes up.

*

A ton of thanks to Mary and Steve for their questions today. I’ll see you Friday for more blogging goodness. Until then, do something good for yourself. You’re worth it.

Also, if you have a second, come celebrate 2 years clean and sober with me on social media.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – When Do I Talk To An Editor?

Good morning everyone, I hope you’re doing well, and that your Wednesday is a delightful one. While you’re reading this, I’m at a doctor’s appointment, so spare a good thought that I’m doing alright and the muzak or the bill hasn’t sent me into a murderous rage.

Today’s topic for #InboxWednesday comes to us from five different people, all asking the same question.

When do I need an editor, and when should I bring in an editor into what I’m writing?

I love this question, so this answer is going to be somewhat meaty, but it needs to be.

Here we go …

There’s no wrong time to bring in an editor. It’s just the role the editor plays will change relative to when they get involved with your manuscript. I’m going to break the writing process down into 3 periods to illustrate this.

Early Stages of Writing
I’m categorizing this as “the period of time when the majority of a draft isn’t written, the ideas are maybe just bullet points, or maybe they aren’t even written down yet.” Yes, I know that’s nebulous, but there’s no way I’m going accurately ballpark a percentage as to how much is on paper versus how much isn’t. And even if I could, there’s no percentage required so you “unlock” editor access.

You can bring the editor in at this point to help you work through those decisions yet to be made (what’s the conflict, what’s this character’s arc look like, what’s the action beat between this moment and that one, etc) as well as to hone the decisions you have made (if you do X when you’ve already got Y, they’ll feed together; why are you starting the book at that spot, when the spot two paragraphs later seems way more in line with what you’re doing; etc)

This is developmental work, where the manuscript’s foundation is laid through decisions and conversation. It’s a fertile land where there’s so much potential and so much story ore to mine.

The hard part, at least editorially, is knowing when to steer and when to be along for the ride. It’s easy to turn someone else’s work into something the editor would create themselves, just by passing a few comments and closing a few options. That’s the danger in “I don’t think you should” coming up in the developmental process. An editor isn’t there to steer this process completely, their presence is as stabilizer and lookout, keeping the craft afloat as the writer navigates MS shoals and other nautical metaphors that I wish I was better at making up.

It’s a very “do it by feel” issue, since some writers are going to be more receptive to the presence of someone else while they’re making the story, and some are going to see it as more an intrusion of something personal, closing ranks as they protect the fragile idea. Neither side is wrong, though it can be a frustrating experience to be consulted and then shut out while making suggestions based on the limited information you get from conversations.

Middle Stages of Writing
Let’s categorize the middle stages as the time when the manuscript is being written, lie by line, chapter by chapter. This is the production stage, when there’s already a road map and the decisions of development have led the writer to put their ass in the chair and make the words happen.

Bringing in the editor here takes away the developmental element, and instead brings in the editorial process. The chapters, paragraphs, sentences, beats and concepts now exist beyond the idea stage, so the way they’re broadcast to the reader (the words chosen for them) become the focus. Here an editor can ask what the writer meant in a particular line, or that they’re unclear with naming something consistently. It’s the editorial process you’d expect, happening still when the body of the MS is still being crafted.

It’s sometimes tough for people to see this as anything other than meddling, like a backseat driver asking if you’re ever going to get to the destination. I’ve heard it described as the person who hovers over dinner being cooked to the point where you doubt whether you’ve boiled the water correctly.

At this stage, it’s not about sowing doubt. At least, doubt isn’t supposed to be spread here. This is a chance to purge it, by finding the elements that are working along with the elements that don’t. Yes, this one sentence kind of rambles and doesn’t work in this investigative beat, but this character dialogue over here is just fantastic. It’s worth pointing out the good as well.

Many writers make the mistake of running a credit/debit T-chart sort of thing when they get feedback, thinking that all the comments are to be weighted equally and that every comma splice or vague pronoun undoes the part where a joke works or the action is well made. No, it doesn’t. When something in the MS works, it works, and that’s independent of the fact that six pages prior, there are too many “she” in a sentence. Calls for revision do not undo the praise. At least, it shouldn’t. But that might be an issue to address outside of the writing process for some people.

An editor here shifts also to motivation, to keep the writer going, stoking the fire so that the creativity behind the MS doesn’t go out, replaced by some new hot idea, shiny thing, or distraction. The writing process is about endurance and discipline, and there are so many people, places, things, blogs, words, comments, ideas, and fears that eat discipline and leave doubt and disappointment as a lovely pile of scat for the writer to step in and then drag around on all the rugs.

The Later Stages of Writing
The manuscript is complete or nearly so, let’s say it’s the last few chapters or maybe it’s just been read by a spouse or a close friend as a beta reader. Here the editor takes on the role that most people think of when they think editor – with the tools laid out to work through the manuscript’s ideas and presentation so that it’s in the best shape possible to do with whatever the writer wants.

In addition to flagging grammar, plot holes, unclear motivations, craptastic dialogue, the editor can also keep an eye out for what comes next. Want to query? See if the editor can help you frame them. Want to self-pub? Maybe the editor has some advice. You won’t know until you ask, and asking’s free, so ask all the questions you have.


There isn’t a “wrong” time to bring an editor into your work. Yes, there’s a budget to consider, because you have to pay the person you’ve hired to do a job, but there’s no rule you’re breaking by doing it at some time other than when you’re absolutely finished.

It’s worth pointing out my own experience, that if you hire me in the early or middle stages, I’m going to want to work with you in the later stages as well, so we both walk the manuscript towards completion and through editing without additional surcharges or doubling down on the expense. But that’s just me, and I don’t speak for everyone doing this.

Bias as aside as I can get it (I like being hired, it helps me afford lunch), an editor is an asset to your writing, both specific to the manuscript as well as a resource for later work as well. People I’ve worked with months ago still get answers to their questions, and still get counseled on whatever issues they’re facing. There’s no walk of shame for a client. Once you’re in the rolodex, and neither of us have fired the other, you’re in the rolodex.

So make use of editors. Their job is to help you get the MS to wherever you want it to be. Don’t let some arbitrary convention and some absolutist sentence that editors can only show up at a certain point stop you from getting your MS out of your head, onto the page, and out to readers.

Follow me on Twitter for more info about this and other topics about writing, publishing and stuff.

Happy writing. Have a great Wednesday.

InboxWednesday – Writer’s Market, Brands&Platform, and Twitter

Good morning everyone. Hope you’re doing well. Welcome back to #InboxWednesday, where I answer questions emailed or tweeted at me. Today, we’re doing 3 questions, all about things writers can do to help their writing.

If you’ve got a question, ask it.

John, what’s the Writer’s Market and is it a big deal? – Aimee

Aimee, this is the Writer’s Market.

2016-01-19 09.38.37

I’m not a fan of the mint green color.

It’s like a phone book for publication. In its 820 pages are listings for magazines, book publishers, literary agents, trade journals, and contests. In earlier editions they had a lovely chart of rates and prices for jobs, replaced now by articles about earning an income, writing queries, and book proposals. To be honest, I preferred the list of rates. I don’t think it’s wrong or bad to talk costs if you’re also going to talk about income opportunities. Still, it’s a useful book for when you’re looking for destinations for that manuscript.

Now, it is the Deluxe version, which does mean there’s a not-deluxe version, and this is that moment where I point out that you want to spend the dollars for the Deluxe Version. The one-year access to the online database is critical if you’re trying to get your MS out the door. Also, it’s often more accurate than the text.

It’s not that the text is completely wrong, just remember that this book was an MS itself, and that means it’s possible that since going to print some of the people and businesses listed might not be available anymore. The online database tends to be more current and more accurate. Also, it’s 2016, an online database should be standard for any resource.

The book runs about $50 on Amazon for the Deluxe, $30 for the standard. Save your pennies and go Deluxe, your MS deserves it.

Using it is super easy: You find the appropriate section of whatever info you’re looking for (let’s say you wanted to write for Montana Magazine, because you like big Buttes and you cannot lie), and read about what they accept (non-fiction, no more than a 1000 words per piece on average it seems) and how they accept it (email, after you query with a sample and an SASE). It’s worth noting these lines: Responds in 6 months to queries & Pays $.20/word.

This knowledge allows you to bang out some simple math (an 800 word essay on rocks would pay you $160) and put together a calendar (if you submit in July while on vacation, you can get a reply when you carve your Thanksgiving turkey). Knowing how much you’ll get paid and when you can communicate with people, combined with the fact that you can do this everyday with hundreds or thousands of opportunities can pack your writing schedule and strengthen your writing ability. Also, you’ll get rhinoceros quality skin from the rejections. Big wins all around.

Hi John! I’m a new author, I mean I’m trying not to call myself aspiring, and I have been reading a lot of blogs. I see a lot of people talk about brands and platforms. I don’t know what they are, but they seem important. Do I need a platform? How do I get one?  – Mary

Mary, this question has a lot of moving parts, so let’s go step by step.

A brand is an image, it’s an idea packaged and presented in a particular way or with a certain sensibility. As a writer, your voice and the work you do is your brand. The Mary brand is characterized by certain things that draw an audience to you, and no matter what story you’re telling, you’ve left specific fingerprints on it. (Maybe you love sentence fragments, or all your sidekicks have eyepatches, whatever)

Mary, brands are for cattle and jeans. You can’t boil down an author to a few regular habits or pigeonhole them due to genre and expect an accurate picture of who the author is and how their work is. This isn’t like producing the same material over and over again, so that batch 10 is just like batch 573. Writing is an art with growth inherent in it, so I want to see a change in products over time. I want characters to develop. I want plots to grow complex. I want to see writers get better at what they do.

Anything you put your name on is, to some degree, your brand. You can spend an obscene amount of time thinking about it as if your brand is under fire and in need of preservation or not. (Hint: It’s not) Do the best you can do, push yourself, stretch yourself, and let someone else ascribe a “brand” to you.

A platform is the way you broadcast yourself. Maybe that’s a website. Maybe that’s a blog. Maybe that’s social media. Maybe it’s a combo platter.

Don’t panic. Platforms are for standing on, or if we’re talking video games, jumping on while trying to avoid getting attacked by stupid digital ninjas. Giving the author one more thing to worry about, one more thing to divide their attention and increase anxiety is not conducive to making the most out of what a platform can do. You just want to write and then talk about stuff.

Yes, platforms are important. But they’re not more important than the act of writing. Loads of writers fall into that rabbit hole where they spend hours and days talking about writing, talking about marketing writing, talking about critiquing writing, and critiquing the talking about marketing of writing, that they skip the part where they should be writing.

Yes, you need to tell other people that you’ve written a thing, or that you’re writing a thing currently. You need to tell people where and how they can acquire what you’ve made if your goal is to earn income from making the thing. The platform is how you do that.

Having one is easy. Blogs are free. Social media is free. You can teach yourself to write concisely for Twitter. You can connect your blog to Google+. You can make time, like that 15 minutes while you eat that muffin and drink your coffee, to tweet about what you’re going to do today. Writing a tweet is barely a few sentences, and even if you labor over them, do you really think it will take all 15 of your allotted minutes?

You can broadcast what you’re doing while you’re still doing it. I said I was going to blog, and here I am, writing this blogpost. When I’m done, I’ll tweet again. It’s up to you to define and carry out a schedule that works for you. The platform is under your control, not the other way around.

Start small. A few tweets. A simple blog you update regularly and consistently. What do you put on it? How about regular updates as to your word count, or maybe the good news that you bought a Writer’s Market and made a list of 7 publishers you want to query before the month is over? If you’re about to ask me where you find the time, I’m going to ask you if you really need to be watching that TV show, really playing that game of solitaire and/or how seriously you’re pursuing getting your MS done and out the door. Make the time, even just a few minutes. Seriously. Yes, you can tweet just before you floss. I won’t tell.

Hey John, I’m on Twitter and have no idea where to start. What do I do?

I love Twitter. I would marry Twitter and our lives would fall into a glorious debauched decay. Yes, there’s a lot of complaining about the future of Twitter, that they’ll do away with its two principle elements (concision and chronology), and maybe that will change my mind on it later, but for now, I think the world of the microblogging format.

Treat Twitter like those telegrams you see on TV. You’re writing short, tight little ideas down and broadcasting them to people. You want to tell them that you’re working on chapter 11, you want to tell people that you’re tired of feeling you’re not good enough, you want to tell people that the secret to a really good cake is slipping some instant pudding into your batter, you’ve got 140 characters (including spaces and punctuation) to do so.

Twitter’s impact is not in its follower count (the number of people who will see what you tweet when you tweet it), but in its brevity. It forces strong and clear word choice. It forces punch. A weak ramble of a sentence, a mush of words, isn’t going to make sense to people, nor will it move them. It’ll just be another bit of palaver, in between all the other applesauce spit out into the world.

That said, it can be an open window into your world. It can invite creepy guys, harassment, anger, morons, hatred, bigotry, distraction, violence, or tedium. True, it doesn’t have the greatest methods for walling yourself off from that, but the whole Internet doesn’t have great walls from that. You have the ability though to do better than software – you can make active and deliberate choices to engage or ignore. You can protect yourself rather than cower. Or, my personal preference, you can not let that stop you, not assume that the worst of the universe is somehow waiting for you because you’re just you, and the world is not out to get you or silence you from all of time and space. It’s a tool, and it can be abused, by others and by yourself

Yes, you can totally misuse it. Tweet over and over that you’re selling something? People are going to get very tetchy and then choose to stop following you. Use a lot of automated software to bait people into weird salesy conversations and you’ll find that many people won’t respond. Tweet infrequently to solicit or sound desperate (often for sales, are you seeing a pattern here in this paragraph?) and you’ll have a hard time being a person people want to parlay with.

There’s a reason it’s called “social media.” You can use it to socialize. Communicate about not just the work. Why not? Why not tell the world that in addition to writing a great action scene today, you also have a turkey roasting in the oven?

If you’re about to say, “Who cares about that?”, I shall respond with, “Who are you to determine what someone else will care about it, and who is it hurting for you to talk about dinner and how good your house smells?”

Start your Twitter adventures by following people. Follow editors (like me, or Amanda or Jeremy), follow writers (like Chuck or Delilah or Stephen King), follow whoever you want (like him or her or this guy or grape jelly or that lady). Read what they have to say, talk to other people. Communicate. Share. Repeat this process until you’re happy with who you communicate with.

You can do this.


Looking ahead to my Friday schedule,  we’re going to be talking about promoting yourself and your work. See you then. Enjoy your Wednesday.

Happy writing.

The Hustle, 2016 edition

Good morning, welcome to Friday. I think were I a wacky morning zoo radio DJ, this is where I’d play some sound effects and then tell you the time, temperature, and traffic. Let’s all be thankful I’m not a DJ and get down to business.

We’re going to talk hustle today. Not the dance, I mean the Rocky chasing chickens, training montage, people doing stuff and getting stuff done hustle. WordPress was being pissy today, otherwise you’d be seeing images not just text right here.
So let’s define “the hustle” as all the things you’re doing to get better at being the best creative you can be while accomplishing your goal. That includes writing regularly. That includes blogging often. That includes … I don’t know, making sure you knit or paint or seed torrents everyday.
The goal, whatever it is, is where we’re going to start today. You need a goal.
There needs to be something driving your creative efforts. Maybe you’re trying to get a book written or published. Maybe you’re writing a script and aiming to get on the Blacklist. Maybe you’re trying to get a business off the ground. Maybe you want to be a wacky morning zoo radio DJ.
Without a clear goal, your efforts don’t have a trajectory – you’re just sort of doing stuff while time ticks by. Sure, things get done, but there’s that “why am I doing this” question hanging around.

What’s your goal? Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Picking that goal, if you haven’t already, is one of those simultaneously simple and scary decisions to make, like when you decide that Taco Bell is a good choice for lunch, or when you decide to call your aunt to see how she’s doing.
The lure of the goal is the end result. If I do all this writing and revising and querying, I’ll have a published book when all’s said and done. If I do a little coding, I can set up a website.
But there’s a trap with goals. It’s a trap of perspective and it’s one I fall into a lot, so let me pry my leg loose and tell you about it.
Yes, sure we can all set a goal. But is that goal set because you can reach it or because you want people to see you reaching it? What’s your reason for doing whatever it is you want to do? Want to see your book on a shelf? Want to earn enough money to take a vacation? Want to get over your fear of weasels? Those are goals for you, based on your own wants and thoughts. There’s this danger though, and I know it well, that you can set up a goal so that someone else will come along and tell you that you’re so brave or good or strong. And you keep at it, because as you work on it, they keep praising you. And there’s nothing wrong with praise. But (and here’s the tough part) some of that praise has to come from within you. You have to love what you do and like doing it and enjoy doing it even if no one sees you doing it.

Yeah, I know, it can suck sometimes.

I’m right there with you on getting my internal I’m-good-enough motor to kick over.
I’m saying that not because I want you to tableflip and walk off, but because part of the hustle is being honest and clear in your efforts. It’s not a bad idea to open a business selling socks, but it might be beyond your scope to start a business where you put all other sock makers out of business. There’s this concept called “target focus” at work here.
Target focus is seeing the small goal(s) within the larger one, and working to accomplish them, while realizing that you’re also accomplishing the larger goal.
Think of a marathon runner. There’s 26 miles to run from start to finish. That 26 seems huge and maybe that makes the runner worry about sore legs or blisters. But, if they think about just running that first mile, then another, then another, a mile at a time, the marathon gets done. They complete the marathon (the goal they set out to do), but there were smaller targets along the way that got done. And each target completed gave them a little momentum and incentive to keep going.
Take that goal, and break it down. What smaller targets can help you build to the larger one? I want to clean a room, I can stare at the voluminous mess and feel overwhelmed or I can quadrant off the room and work in 2 square feet of space at a time until I’ve finished. Or I can do one pass through the mess to collect all the laundry, and a separate pass to pick up all the books off the floor. There’s no wrong way to make targets.

A target is defined by:
a) A practical simplicity that advances you to completing the bigger goal
b) It’s something you can do that is actively productive

That (b) part is critical, and I was hesitant to talk about it until recently. Because anyone can take a goal and break it into pieces, but you can break pieces down again and again until you’ve sucked the effort and challenge out of them, until they’re inert. It might look like you’re doing something, but you’re not making a lot of headway. That lack of measurable progress can lead you to frustration.

Go back to that messy room. I can clean in 2 foot squares, which might be physically taxing or time consuming or I could at each pass, just pick up one piece of paper at a time and throw it out. I’d be here cleaning all day. Sure, I’m making progress, but I’ve slowed down to the point where it’s almost not seriously going to matter. And moving towards your goal should matter. You should want to accomplish your goal, for you, for your own reasons.

I say that as someone who knows what it’s like to set a HUGE goal that generates a lot of buzz, and then feel overwhelmed and undermotivated to go accomplish it. Maybe undermotivated isn’t the right word, so let’s pick a new one … how about terrified? Terrified of failing, terrified of succeeding, terrified of discovering I’m either good or not good at it … just plain scared to make progress.

Setting target helps. You can reach targets. Targets are realistic and not scary, they’re activities that happen every day. Set targets that have a bit of challenge, but that you can do. It’s not being anti-ambitious, it’s tempering that super-ambition down to a practical level. So that shit gets done. Try it, let me know how it works for you.

Geared up with a good goal and a motivation to do it, targets focused on, we get to the obvious yet not-obvious part of the hustle: <strong>you actually have to do whatever it is you want to do</strong>. If you want to be someone who makes soap, you have to make soap.

Here we find all kinds of distractions. The Internet. Relationships. Other goals. That whole stupid part where you have bills and taxes. Day jobs. Pants.

Keep that goal and its targets in mind. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. The distractions will still be there for you to handle later, but when you’re on the hustle, when you’re being that creative doing that creative stuff, tell the distractions to wait outside.

I know, I know, some of that stuff doesn’t feel like a distraction. You need that Spotify playlist so you can write. You need your coffee. You need to make sure the dog has water. You just need to check one more thing. You say that’s not a distraction, you just need to be doing it instead of hustling towards your goal. (Feel free to repeat this paragraph out loud a few times, I’ll wait.)

You’re not working in a vacuum. Unlike Matt Damon, you haven’t been stranded on Mars. There are interruptions. That phone’s gonna ring. The kids are gonna need something. The dog has to go out. Yes, there are things that are going to break your momentum.
Let me give you a tool for getting back to hustling after you take a break (either intentionally or not). This is what I do, maybe it’ll work for you.
You’re going to come back to your work after whatever paused it, and you’re going to picture, in your head, in as much detail as you can give a single snapshot, your goal being accomplished. See that book on the shelf. See your foe vanquished at your feet. See the Kickstarter funded. See the yolk not breaking when you flip your eggs. Get that in your head, then count to 10. Then push yourself into work.
You can get the momentum back. Really. You just need to push. And that push (I don’t have a fancy term for it, if you have one, tell me) takes energy, force of will, whatever you want to call it. But you’ve got your goal in mind, right, so getting back to work is what’s going to make that goal a reality.
You lose the momentum, you lose that vector, you get it back. Trip, fall, get back up again. There’s no penalty for however many times you stop, stall, stutter, tumble, break down, pause, uhh, or swear you’re going to give it up but keep going anyway. You’re not a bad creative because you didn’t do whatever you’re doing in one super long productive period. You’re not a bad creative because you tried and failed and then had to try again.
The important thing is that you got back up and tried again. That you put your fingers back on the keys. That you didn’t just close the laptop and say you were right all along about never getting your dream made.

Get back to work. Hustle. Make it happen.

The Tease Of The Bookshelf

So, it’s Wednesday. Middle the week. Hump day. That day where I always feel like it’s too early to make weekend plans, but that if I don’t make those plans, I’ll let it go too far and miss out on something.

First, let me take a minute to thank all the new people who have come to the blog within the last few weeks. I am sincerely thankful for all of you, and if given a chance would write you all emails expressing how much it means to me that people even take a few minutes to read my words. My reach is never something I understand, but it is something I’m very eager to expand. Sort of like a toddler, or a small drunk dictator. I suppose there’s very little difference between the two.

Second, let me give you an update on #FiYoShiMo. If you’ll look at the toolbar, you’ll see a FiYoShiMo index page. That’s a whole list of links that will take you to each post in the month. Yes, I know day 2 is a pdf, but that’s because WordPress is a jerk, and I have no idea where the post went. The entirety of the posts exists now as an MS, which I’m busy polishing (read: fixing the internal links so they’re text, and formatting) and my next goal is to get it proofed and start querying. I’ll be putting everything from the querying process onward on the blog as a series of posts. It’s been far too long since I was in the publishing trenches, and I’d prefer to be in the thick of things and not upon some pedestal looking down. I may fail, I may succeed, but no one will be able to say that I didn’t try.

On we go to today’s topic, which was suggested to me via Twitter conversation. Maybe conversation is too broad a word, it was more: “Hey John, write something about this, I’m struggling with it.” And the good news is that I struggle with it too, so I’m going to spend some words expressing my own experiences. I’m hopeful you’ll find a parallel in your experiences. Maybe together we can work this out.

So I’m writing this from the upstairs office (read: the computer in my bedroom) of the house. I could have written this in the actual office in the house, but I didn’t. I could have written this on my phone, and then I wouldn’t have had to get up from the couch, but I didn’t. The majority of my writing takes place in this chair, on this machine, and it’s so ingrained me as a process that writing anywhere else feels awkward and even a little scandalous.

The problem with writing in this room (aside from the fact is that there’s no fireplace and no couch), is that there’s this bookcase on my right. It’s currently a post-holiday mess, as I haven’t filed away any of the new books I’ve picked up over the last month, and I haven’t cleaned up the spilled business cards from my last convention. It is an obelisk to and a microcosm of my writing career – crammed with material, often in need of organizing.

On those shelves are all the books written by the people who influence and inspire me. Some are friends. Some are authors deader than disco. Some are clients, or were once. I look at that bookshelf every few sentences when writing. Because it is one of the many lighthouses by which I orient myself. Yes, I have several in my life. We’ll talk about that some day.

That bookshelf is where I go when I need a boost. It’s there when I don’t know how to structure something, it’s there when I need a reference. All useful stuff. It’s a bookshelf, it’s a tool to aid me, and also it keeps clutter off my floor.

But stacked along with all my references and notes, is anxiety. And to be blunt about it, envy is a jerk. Anxiety is a huge fucking jerk, the amalgam of every bully, every blowhard, every abuser, every torturer you can imagine. And that’s because anxiety is armed with a barbed nagyka of self-doubt.

Anxiety uses it competently to flay the nerves, skewer assumptions, and scourge confidence.

And here’s how it happens.

So you’re writing, or you’re thinking about writing. Maybe there are words on the page, maybe they’re still forming semi-orderly lines in your head before they paratroop down screen or page. All things are going well. You’ve got something to drink. The dog doesn’t need to go out. The phone isn’t ringing. You’ve got a good playlist queued up. No one’s knocking at the door. It’s go-time, writer. Time to make the words happen.

In that instant, in that small moment of pause between one word and the next, you catch the faintest whiff of worry. You have words down, your fingers are dancing over keys, but the pace is slowing. The worry grows. The writing stops. Your stomach does a little toddler’s tumble. And so begin the questions.

Is this okay? Am I good enough to do this? Is this going to do alright? Will an editor shred this in their toothy maw? Will anyone buy this stuff? What the hell am I doing? Crack crack crack goes the flail. In those wounds, already festering and raw, more self-doubt seeps in. Until you’re comparing yourself to other people. Until your fingers aren’t on the keys. Until you’re unsure of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Now this is even before we can talk about anxiety burgling its way into your head when you’re not writing. There’s material there for a dozen lifetimes of blogs by a thousand billion people. I’m looking at the panic, worry, and doubt that comes when the words are supposed to be coming out.

I look at my bookshelf, and see the names. Would I ever be as good as them? Would they recognize me as talented? Would they let me into whatever fantastic club I believe them a part of? Am I good at anything? Will I leave a legacy like theirs? Am I shouting into some void? Would I be better off moving to some orchard and picking fruit? (I bet I’d be a great orchardeer, or orchard caretaker, orchardtaker or whatever)

There was once I time where these thoughts would send me angrily to pull the shelf down, and throw the books every which way in the room. There was a time when I’d write a very large “Fuck Everything” on social media, or any media and just go play video games and sulk. That anger has been pulled from me, with regular leeching of comfort and wisdom. And I’m thankful. Because now I get to sit here and see the anxiety coming. Now I maybe know what to do about it.

See, I don’t know if I’ll leave a legacy. I have no idea if anyone but a few people will remember me when I’m gone, let alone remember me fondly. I have no idea if there’s a secret good-writer club. I don’t know if some of the people whose books are on my shelves know I exist.

It’s hard to say that I don’t care. Because I do care. I just try not to care so much. That’s not easy. I know it’s not easy. But it’s what I need to do to get my fingers back on those keys. It’s what I need to say to myself, over and over, even out loud, even at meals, even just before I post to the blog, so that I assure myself that these efforts aren’t lost.

No, no, this isn’t some blather where I’m seeking your praise. Sure, I’d love some right now, but I’m trying to be objective here, don’t you see? The answer to the anxiety is reassurance. We can debate whether it’s best from yourself or others later, the fact remains that reassurance from somewhere is often enough to kick anxiety to the curb.

So I look to my lighthouse again. And yes, there are plenty of writers to be envious of there. Book after book share the same names. But tucked between them, there are the books I worked on. The things I’ve done. My name may not be on many covers, but my name’s in there. Reassurance.

Here’s where you tell me, John, I’m just (WHOEVER YOU ARE)) and I haven’t been published. What good does your lighthouse do me? All I have are these books by other people, and I feel so small and insignificant.

And I will say to you – the act of writing is reassurance. Yeah, I know, it’s not as reassuring as being published, but I’ll tell you that plenty of people I know have been published more than once and they’re never coasting on some idea that they’ve “made it.” There’s that hunger, that drive, that hustle. (We’ll talk hustle Friday)

Do whatever you can to reassure yourself that what you’re doing, what you’re making, belongs on a bookshelf. Even if it’s your bookshelf. Maybe you go play with your kids when you’re done writing for the day. Maybe you go look at SpongeBob porn (I just found out that was a thing). Maybe you go into the backyard and stare at clouds. Maybe you play Spider Solitaire until your fingers cramp. Whatever you do, whatever balm you can provide yourself, go do it.

And then go write. One idea, one word, one step at a time. You lose your bearings, you look to that lighthouse, you look to that waiting reassurance, and you get back to writing.

Let’s make a deal. I’ll believe in you, you believe in me, and we’ll go shake anxiety down for its lunch money and buy tacos when we’re done writing for the day.

You’re good enough to do the amazing things. You’re good enough to write what you want. You might need help, it might take a while to write what you want. but you can do this.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. (maybe I’m saying this as much to myself as to you) Go write.

See you Friday, when we talk hustle.

Some things to do now that you’ve read this post —
Check out the Google Community where you can congregate with other writers doing writer-stuff.
Want more John-words? Got a few bucks? Check out Smashwords.
Find me on Twitter, and see what I’m talking about today.

Starting The Year Off

Blank pages and I never had this relationship before. I didn’t think twice about them. I never became aware of their size. I never courted their infinite potential. They were just the space where I put words. They weren’t scary. They weren’t ominous.

So when I spent the whole of December filling them, day after day, the blank page was just this workspace. It had no greater meaning to me than a legal pad or the notepad I keep in the kitchen to write grocery lists.

But then I took a much needed day off. Technically, it was a weekend off, as I’m rewriting this post on Monday morning. There was a post here, but it was raw and a little desperate … but we’ll get there. I took that day off, and looked backwards. That’s not something I normally do, but we’ll get there too.

Reflection is a trap. Reflection can lead to nostalgia, envy, comparison, and a host of other distractions. And into that trap I fell.

The blank page of the blogpost became prison and torturer all at once.

To fight it, I did what I always do, I did what I tell everyone to do, you go spit in its eye and you get to work. Writing with that edge of proving the doubt wrong. Full throttle, no brakes.

Now I could tell you that just bull-nosed slogging through that moment of doubt or fear fixed everything and I’m all 100000000% back on track, but that would be a lie. Sure, making my fingers put words on the page helped there not be a blank page, but reflection doesn’t just evaporate just because you do something.

Oh no, reflection takes the words you’re making and snacks on them. It sees what you’re doing and (if you’re like me) it starts to compare them to other words. Maybe other words you wrote, maybe other words other people wrote.

Now I’ve done some checking and I am not Tesla, Pressfield, Doyle, Wendig, Stout, Miranda, McKee, Dawson, Baker, Henry, Engard, Balsera, Hicks, Macklin, Edison, Ford, Foley, or King. I am none of those people. I am a guy in a bathrobe that smells like woodsmoke. I am a guy who sees success like it’s a light at the end of a tunnel. A tunnel that I’ve been running like a marathon, with both my legs chained together, dragging behind me the assorted cement covered ghosts those who doubted me, adults who abused and infected me with doubt and fear, a number of rejection letters, professional faux pas, and unspoken envies and regrets. One foot in front of the other. I feel the ghosts clawing at my shins and ankles. One foot in front of the other.

What I’m saying is, I see what other people are doing, I look at what I’m doing, and I often feel bad about what I’m doing. It makes me melancholy. It makes me desperate. You won’t see the blogpost that I originally wrote, where I went on and on about how much pneumonia sucks. You won’t see the stream of consciousness I needed to exorcise from me. That was the frustration and vulnerability and fear taking my ideas and tinting them.

Sure, it was a good post, some of those sentences have so far been repurposed here, but this mess of reflection and comparison feels like quicksand. Struggle in it, become aware of it, and you’re going down.

And because now I’m aware of it, the blank page is white quicksand.

When that pull grabs you, when you start going under, you start grabbing at anything to stay afloat. For me, it’s shocking transparency and raw honesty. Tell the world how I’m hurting. Tell the world how tough, hard, scary, and grim the world can be. Talk about mental health. Talk about poverty. Talk about health care and heartache and fleeting happiness. Be vulnerable, so that people won’t just read my words, but they’ll feel something. They feel something, so I’ll feel something.

That doesn’t stop the quicksand, it still pulls, but at least then I’m not sinking so quickly. But I’ve lost something along the way. It’s not terribly “professional” to be talking so horrifically about the downsides of being me. It’s not encouraging for people to come hire me if I’ve spent blog page after blog page talking about chest pains and hospital visits. It’s not the start of a great working relationship if I get angry at one group of people for not hiring me while I do get the chance to work for another group of people.

So what to do?

I go look for the magic sword. mastersword

There’s this moment in Legend of Zelda, where your little guy is wandering around the maze of woods, trying to get his shit together, trying to overcome obstacles, trying to keep going (does any of that sound familiar?) and eventually, after a few adventures and some hard work, you come to this clearing and there’s this sword in a stone. You of course have recently discovered the ability to wield said sword, because quest logic, so you yank the sword from its pedestal, and it’s go time.

Armed with that magic sword, you are ability to mow down your opponents and feel pretty sweet while doing it. It’s a pretty awesome sense of accomplishment. I’ve always liked that moment. It’s wonder this little warrior guy doesn’t slice his thumb off, but he does alright.

To find my own magic sword, I go find things that inspire me: today it’s a hardcore wrestling match where I watched a man fall twenty feet and not die, and a little boy building with Lego, and turn that perseverance, turn what those things mean to me, into my own I-can-do-this magic sword, which I get to wield because it’s my own damned magic sword.

Armed now, I go attack the voices in my head that tell me I don’t know what I’m doing, or that I’m not good at doing whatever it is I think I’m doing. I stab and swing and carve a swath of “Go fuck yourself, voices” into that screaming chorus of no-one-loves-me-and-no-one-could-because-look-how-bad-I-am-at-doing-things and I equate bad with failure with wrong. So of course I need to stab the ever loving hell out of those ghosts. There’s good work in me, I just need to get this crap out of the way first.

All this came from the reflection, remember, from taking time away from writing daily. I see this, I hear the voices, I swing the sword, and say to myself, “To avoid doing this on the regular, I should probably stop reflecting, I should probably stop stopping.”

Yeah, that’s a completely reasonable solution (that’s sarcasm). Swinging from one extreme (go full super work) to the other (do nothing) is not a solution for anything that isn’t turning on a light switch.

Which means my only option is to put the words on the page and keep trying.

I don’t know how to be that ideal professional. I don’t know how to blog “Effectively” according to Pinterest articles. I don’t know how to do a lot of that stuff.

What I do know is writing. Word craft. Story structure. Creativity. Words.

So let’s spend 2016 getting better at things. Let’s go together on this trip where I go get FiYoShiMo published. Let’s march through lessons about writer’s block and story structure for bad TV and movies. Let’s talk professionalism and audience building and good networking. Let’s have a laugh at the number of stories I have that start with, “So I have vague recollections of meeting this person when I wasn’t sober…”

Let us make 2016 a year where we do good work together.

And don’t worry, I’ve got this magic sword.

 

FiYoShiMo Day 24 – Your World and Tone

Today’s the last day of Worldbuilding on FiYoShiMo, and we’re going to tie many pieces together.

When we talk the tone in a manuscript, we’re looking at the word chosen to convey the way the MS should feel to the audience. I know, we’re always technically talking word choice when we talk writing, but let’s not split hairs.

Think about the world you’re telling the story in. Think about the plot, think about how it affects the world. Got it in your head? It’s okay if it’s unclear, you’re not going to have to write the whole thing out today.

Get a piece of paper. We’re going to make a Feel Document, only now we’re going to call it a Tone Document, because I can rename it whatever I want.

Put the title of your MS on the paper. No title? Call it “The Untitled Book I’m Writing” or something. Call it Gary, let’s not get hung up on this point.

Did you have any scenes in your head? A moment that really stands out, either because you’ve already written it, or you’re excited to write it. can you get that scene boiled down to a sentence or phrase that fits on ONE LINE of the page?

On the line below that, draw a line.
On the lines below that, start listing adjectives to describe how that scene feels TO THOSE CHARACTERS INVOLVED IN IT.

Like this:

A guy walks down a creepy, dark hallway looking for an axe murderer
———————————————————-
Tense
Fearful
Cold

Now in my made up scene, that guy is going to take an axe to the face at some point, but that action beat is pretty straightforward in terms of tone (pretty sure it’s going to suck to be him), so I want to really spend my words on the moments before axe-meets-face. The more I can put down there, the more buildup I can create to make the killing strike a bigger deal.

Do this for all the scenes that stand out to you. Do it for all the scenes you have written already.

Once you get all the scenes tonally listed, see if there are any common threads or even repeated words. These repeated adjectives are indicative of your world’s tone. They’re signposts that you don’t want to stray too far from when writing. Treat them like landmarks when you feel like you’ve gone off course. Navigate not based on action beats, but on how you want the MS to feel to the reader.

Ask: “Okay, I’m reading this, I’m in place of the character in this moment, what would I feel if this were happening to me?

The two skills I’m suggesting you strengthen here have names. Reflection is when the tone remains consistent even when scene types or character arcs change. Treat it like an Instagram filter – the photo’s subject changes from your kale and horseshit sandwich to the pair of shoes you artfully balance next to your green juice and whichever bullshit book you think makes you look worldly, but it’s still sort of sepia and overblown. (I may have said too much there)

Reinforcement is when the tone gets cemented as more information gets added to the existing material. Think Lego – you’re building some monster-sized playset, and all the bricks are the same shade of grey, because the spaceship you’re making is grey. A red brick thrown into the middle would stick out, and likely irritate some part of you that appreciates appearance and your efforts.

Scenes need to fit tonally with each other. If you’re writing a snarky blogpost, it would feel weird to suddenly get all serious. This isn’t like when a boy band breaks it down while reaching out to the audience, this is more like when that record scratch moment when someone makes a bold statement just when everything gets quiet.

The arc of a character has to ride along the rails of tone while they experience whatever it is they’re going through. Yes, I mean boundaries. They help keep out the extraneous leakage of emotion and add a vector for the arc as you stay on target towards character change.

Your world’s tone needs to be reflected across all different types of elements. Want your dystopia to feel dirty and gritty and a little hopeless? Express those ideas in as many different ways as possible. There’s a balance there, to be sure, but when you’re getting the ideas onto the page, trust that revision will suss out when you’ve beaten dead horses. This isn’t time for revision, this is a time for production.

Practice, map it out. The more development you can do, the more you can solidify the idea in your own head, which will make those moments of “What am I doing here on this page?” easier to bear.

You can do this.

Tomorrow is Christmas, so there’s no FiYoShiMo. We’ve both earned a day off. See you on the 26th when we talk revision and other decisions. The homestretch of FiYoShiMo awaits!

Have a great holiday, if that’s your jam.